You climb the stairs to the space above chef Sean Brock’s new restaurant in Nashville, Audrey, an haute homage to his grandmother’s Appalachian cooking, named after her. You sit down in one of 10 stools at The Bar and ask for the menu. Obliging you, the bartender picks up a wicker basket containing five different farm products. That’s it. That’s your menu. The bartender talks you through the offerings. Maybe it’s some cutting celery, a bunch of blonde carrots, a handful of blue barley, a parsnip, or a kumquat-mandarin hybrid called a manquat. You choose your favorite, and they whip you up an incomparable drink.
Like the Tokyo drinking dens that inspired it — places like the omakase bar Gen Yamamoto, which specializes in the Ginza fruit cocktail, a dealer’s choice style of drink made to highlight fresh juices at peak season — The Bar takes the concept of field-to-glass to its most refined conclusion. Offering five new creations nightly, each made à la minute with only three ingredients, The Bar is, on one hand, a minimalist paean to the work of the local farmers who supply Brock with his provender. Yet, its simplicity is deceptive because his mixologists benefit from the wizardry of the chef’s research and development lab, with its microwave essential oil extractor, bioreactor, sundry presses, and other fancy gear on display through glass walls adjacent to The Bar.
A fascinating marriage of high-flying ideals and high-tech ingenuity, The Bar is a distillation of the current obsessions in American mixology. VinePair talked to the guys who make magic happen. A native of Huntsville, Ala., beverage director Jon Howard previously worked as corporate beverage director for BLT Steak and bartended in New York at lauded bars like Dante, Saxon + Parole, and American Whiskey, where he was an owner, before heading back down South. Head bartender Mike Wolf is the author of “Garden to Glass: Grow Your Own Drinks from the Ground Up” and the Covid-era “Barantined: Recipes, Tips, and Stories to Enjoy at Home.” In 2013, he opened Husk Nashville, where he perfected the art of fresh-from-the-kitchen-garden cocktails. He also launched the Nashville tiki bar Chopper in 2019.
Howard and Wolf told us how it all works at The Bar, and what others can learn from Audrey’s ethos.
1. How did The Bar come about?
MW: The concept comes from Chef Brock, who was blown away while in Tokyo in 2016 or 2017. He was still drinking then. He went to a few cocktail dens that incorporated the concept of the Japanese tea ceremony and laid out ingredients for a “menu.” He told himself that if he ever did a serious bar again, this is how he would do it. I had lunch with Chef Brock in the summer of 2019, and he described this concept: different drinks every day, three ingredients per drink, only a few spirits on offer. I thought he was nuts to do it in a “Southern-focused” restaurant, or whatever I thought Audrey was going to be. I thought, “I’ve heard him talk about ideas like this before, and I’m sure he will forget about it.” So I was surprised when I first started working at Audrey that he was still committed to the idea.
JH: Chef wanted to find a way for the bar to present produce in the same way the kitchen does food. Mike and I worked to fine-tune the concept into something different but fresh: a Southern cocktail omakase. So, it’s the Americanization of the concept. We’re not taking Gen Yamamoto and throwing it into Nashville. American drinkers are not the same. The cultures are different. So we tried to meld the ideals in a way that is unique. Part of that is the exchange with the guests. Mike can talk to the ingredients better than anybody in the building. The same way a normal bartender would tell you about bourbon, whiskey, or rye, he talks about the produce.
2. How do you build your drinks?
MW: We have a big walk-in with all this beautiful citrus through the winter. As we get into spring, we have cukes and radishes, or carrots have been beautiful in Nashville this year. You’re down there in the cellar looking at what’s exciting, what’s vibrant and fresh. Then, you walk around and talk to the chefs: “Can I have about 25 of these carrots for tonight?” You make sure you’re not stepping on any of their toes. There’s a lot of communication back and forth.
Then you go upstairs, start cutting into things, smelling, tasting, seeing what ideas come about, what spirit’s going to work. “Is this celery perfect with tequila?” “This blood orange reminds me of sweet vermouth.” You build the menu from there. For your third element, there’s all these lab ingredients: lacto-fermented parsnip cordial, chili oil that’s pure essence of habanero, different vermouths and cordials I’ve made.
Then you figure out the last details: which glassware to use, what needs a big ice rock, what spirit needs to come out of the freezer. In “Garden to Glass,” I talk about how even a little piece of herb you use for a garnish can make a huge difference in what you taste, so think about all those little things. We have an ingredient library that changes with the micro-seasons.
JH: Nothing is shaken, and it’s not stirred. Produce is broken down, spirit is added, then it’s muddled, spooned, tossed around, strained, and at that point, there’s no ice anywhere. We’re going from a fresh ingredient, and that’s the bulk of the drink. During service, the drink keeps its fresh identity because everything’s done right there on the spot when you order it. It can’t be any fresher than grating two carrots down to nothing. The lab ingredients are used in a manner that they’re just going to help highlight things.
3. What are micro-seasons, and how do you work with them?
MW: We’re dealing with eight to 12 little seasons that come and go. I’m looking at strawberries, and some are decent from North Carolina and Florida. Ones from Tennessee aren’t ready yet, but they’re green and white and sort of interesting, so how do I use that as a new flavor?
JH: That’s the reason the team tastes everything every day. Produce changes. It goes on a journey. We’re preparing it for what it tastes like that day.
MW: We think a lot about the immediacy of something, that freshness and aroma. An example is we got really nice tangelos from Florida, and when they came into the cellar, they were tight. There was an acidity to them, a lot of pop. Then, the kitchen had to make way for a big batch of turnips, so the tangelos moved out on a rack, where they became much more ripe. When they were tighter and brighter, we did something with tequila and an oleo saccharum. When they were sweeter, we did a drink with manzanilla sherry, which is great for when you want the subtleties of the main ingredient to show through. This is more about getting the freshness of the ingredient into the drink, so guests are really experiencing that broken down, juiced, and poured. They can smell it all.
JH: You don’t get that in other bars. You don’t get that unless it’s an intentional serve. The general process of making the drink is giving guests an olfactory response. But every ingredient changes every day. You have to almost forget what you did the day before. That way, you know you’re in the moment.
MW: We are in the habit of forgetting. There is a book we keep. We do go back to make sure we’re not stepping on an idea that we did 10 days ago, which can happen, but we always try to change things up.
4. You mentioned Chef Brock’s R&D lab. It’s right next to The Bar, and it’s full of gear. Can you describe some of the equipment you’re using?
MW: There’s a certain kind of juicer that’s just a big, steel basket press. It really helps in getting those oils right into the juice. You’re slowly pressing citrus in there, and you can really notice how much bitterness is inside those fruits. A lot of times, you don’t need to add bitters to a drink when you’ve juiced a pomelo. The fruit itself has a nice, fresh bitterness, so you’re getting complexity from that one ingredient.
JH: If Mike feels we want to use this bitter ingredient, we’ll use that hand juicer but not press so hard. We have a daikon radish grater that takes softer things — radishes, turnips, apples, pears — and keeps their water content in there, where it integrates with the spirits. We have wheatgrass hand cranks for things like cutting celery or basil. Chef has given us the tools for multiple ways to extract flavor into a glass.
5. What’s the most unexpected ingredient you’ve worked with, and how did you handle it?
MW: Spring leeks. Cactus was crazy. Collard greens; that was trippy.
JH: For the collard greens drink, we didn’t have the crank juicers yet. We took four leaves, muddled them with high-proof whiskey to get more extraction out of them, then added this specific maple syrup from Virginia. The whiskey was obviously there at 1 and a half ounces, and it brought out all that flavor. The color was olive, but the drink tasted green.
MW: Parsnip was kind of interesting. I had been working with sassafras, cooking it down. I had a parsnip that I was peeling and tasting, figuring out how to extract its juice, and I realized it went with sassafras. That was a combination I never tried before. If you’re staying open to these things and really using your nose, you can come up with something new. I shredded the parsnip, added sorghum syrup cooked down with sassafras, and then John Emerald Spurgeon’s Aged Rum.
JH: Mike is so much better about making sure everything is clean across the palate. There are times that I say, “Fuck it,” and throw something really polarizing at people.
MW: I love taking chances, too, but one thing we train people on is being in touch with the inner voice in your head that says, “This is not working.” You can arrive at it next week, but if you’re trying for it that night, maybe just try a different idea. Otherwise, you’ll get lost spending 30 to 40 minutes on one thing, and you don’t have a lot of time. You come in at 2 p.m., and you want to have the nuts and bolts put together by staff meal at 3:30. So, make sure you like your drinks first. Don’t be apathetic. Be into it. That’s a daily challenge for everybody, trying to make sure you’re making something delicious.
6. Can you talk a bit more about the alcohol component?
JH: The spirit component is a major player, and the nuance of the spirit is going to help. So you may want to try a juice with several different gins or tequilas because you only have three ingredients.
MW: You find yourself reaching for a 10-year-old bourbon a whole lot less, and thinking blanco tequilas, gins with nuance rather than punch, vermouths, and fortified wines — things that help with keeping it fresh.
7. Are non-alcoholic drinks part of the picture?
MW: Non-alcoholic is huge. We will take any of the drinks and make them non-alcoholic, which is easy when you’re just trying to get that ingredient into the glass. One of the best drinks we did was when someone wanted a cucumber cocktail, but they were expecting, so they needed it zero proof. So we had made a zero-proof spirit using a tea we brewed from citrus that we distilled in the lab, and it allowed the cucumber to come through even more. So zero proof is a big part of The Bar.
JH: At the downstairs bar inside Audrey, the goal is [to have a menu of] 10 drinks, but half are non-alcoholic.
8. How does sustainability fit in?
MW: We had all this turmeric from south of Nashville, and I cooked most of that, preserved it in alcohol, and made a cordial with it. That was the best way to showcase it because we weren’t going to do two weeks’ worth of turmeric cocktails. Preservation is part of the whole idea.
JH: There’s no waste. What little excess there is, Mike makes into an ingredient that we can use for the next four months: curaçao, falernum, orgeat. From the point of view of financial sustainability, we’re not throwing money away in that manner. It’s shelf-stable spirits, produce of the day, and the labor is you’re there for two hours before you open, you do the menu, you serve, and you go home.
9. In Japan, omotenashi — hospitality — is primary. How does the hospitality part work at The Bar?
MW: It has the vibe of making a drink for someone when they come into your house. You pull stuff out, break it down, and make it right in front of them. It’s definitely a time to make people feel really special and give them an experience that they’re not going to forget.
JH: It’s a form of escapism. In most bars, there’s that deafening shaking of the tins. To go into a bar where that’s not present, you can be with people around you, with the smells [and] the bartenders. There’s an aura about the whole thing, and the experience is tied together with the feeling of comfort.
10. How has The Bar been received by guests?
JH: A lot of people who come in with open eyes and hearts are blown away. But with anything that is disruptive, it’s a give-and-take with some people. We do five things a night extremely well, as opposed to making anything known to man. Traditionally, bars have had to have 9,000 things to give people what they want, and that makes it hard to do something intentional and singular. But now is a good time because you’re starting to see more bars get culinary and operate like kitchens. A kitchen is able to prep what’s best that evening, but bars had been in the dark ages.
11. Sean Brock’s restaurants have long been on the forefront of the bar scene. What’s up next?
JH: At the Vesper Club, the front bar at Chef Brock’s restaurant The Continental inside the Grand Hyatt Nashville, I will be creating a five-course caviar tasting menu with drinks designed for the caviars. I taste the caviar, break it down, and create a Martini paired to its flavor. The technique I use to make the Martini is based on the caviar’s texture. If it’s firm with a brisk bite, the drink is going [into the] freezer to rest so it’s rich. If the caviar is rich and creamy, I’m going to throw the Martini. If it’s in the middle, I’ll stir.
Here on the other side of the R&D lab, Chef Brock’s tasting-menu concept, June, will open this summer, and I will be doing cocktails from the bar station in the kitchen. There will be no cocktail menu. You can’t order a drink. They’re just going to come to you. It’s part of the planned experience for June. They will be very experimental and experiential, and we’ll be utilizing the lab more. We’ll go in depth, playing with all five senses.